When I heard yesterday afternoon that Senator Carl Levin was not going to run for reelection, the first thing that popped into my mind was a line from Macbeth.
"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."
That doesn’t exactly fit here, though the way in which he chose to leave the Senate was as classy as his spotless career.
Levin accomplished many things in Congress.
He is Michigan’s longest serving U.S. Senator ever. When his time ends, he will have served six terms - 36 years.
With each election, his margin has grown. Had he run for a seventh term next year, at the age of 80, everyone knows what would have happened. The Republicans would have nominated some term-limited legislator, who he would have crushed.
But that meant Carl Levin would still have been in the Senate at 86.
Today, he seems far younger than his age. Yet congressional history is full of doddering old men who stayed on after their best days, and sometimes their minds, were gone.
Nobody was going to say that about him.
He grew up in a Detroit family with a tradition of public service, where issues were discussed every night at the dinner table.
He never flaunted it, but the rumpled man with the perpetual comb over was a shrewd graduate of Harvard Law School. What few remember now is that he first made his name on Detroit City Council.
Those were the years when his older brother Sandy was the star of the family, a crusading State Senator who twice lost close elections for governor.
Then, in 1978, U.S. Senator Robert Griffin decided not to run for reelection.
Carl Levin threw his hat in the ring, and easily beat a crowded primary field.
Griffin changed his mind and ran anyway, but his candidacy was damaged. Levin won.
He had to battle to be reelected the first time, the year of Ronald Reagan’s historic landslide, but he hasn’t had to work up a sweat to be reelected ever since.
There were those who say Michigan wasn’t his biggest focus in the Senate, where, for years now, he has been the powerful chair of the Armed Services Committee.
There is some truth in that, but he did more than anyone to attempt to stop the kind of abuses on Wall Street and in the financial services industry that came to light after the collapse of some of the nation’s biggest brokerage houses at the start of the Great Recession five years ago.
Levin stood for civil liberties in the aftermath of September 11, and gay rights in the military when neither cause was popular.
He’s served without a hint of scandal, personal or professional. When I last interviewed him, he met me at a modest restaurant, drove himself in a non-flashy car, came without aides and talked candidly about whatever I wanted to talk about.
Michigan has sent two giants to the senate in my lifetime; Philip Hart and Carl Levin.
My admiration for Senator Levin increased yesterday, when I learned he had resisted the temptation to stay for another term.
That, too, took guts and integrity.
But at the same time, I am sad.